When you think of efficient shooters, what type of shot distribution do you typically imagine they have? (Just play along here and pretend you both A. think of efficient shooters and B. imagine their shot distributions in your spare time.) Chances are, you imagine something that looks very much like James Harden’s shot chart: lots of attempts at the rim, lots of 3s, and very little in the way of mid-range shots. You probably also imagine they, like Harden, draw a heap of free throw attempts to boost their efficiency even more.
If you used only this template to search high and low for efficient shooters, you’d completely miss the boat on one of the most efficient scorers in the league: the one and only Chris Paul. CP3 doesn’t take a huge percentage of his shots at the rim or from 3, and he doesn’t hit an exceptionally high percentage of either of those type of shots. He’s pretty much league average on restricted area attempts (+1.8%) and is actually slightly below league average on above-the-break 3-pointers this season (-.8%). So how is he having the second most efficient shooting season of his career (his .586 TS% so far is second to only his .599 in the 2008-09 season)?
Paul has broken the mold by eschewing the most efficient shots on the floor in favor of the least efficient ones, yet converting those inefficient shots at a preposterously high rate. Typically, shots inside the lane but outside the restricted area carry a lower likelihood of success, while yielding the same payoff as restricted area shots, and mid-range shots yield a similar (while slightly higher) rate of success but less payoff than 3-pointers. So in each case, the latter shot is a more efficient proposition than the former. Restricted area shots are better than those toward the back of the paint, and 3-pointers are better than mid-range shots, if we’re talking expected value.
That’s largely why so many modern defenses concentrate on shutting down attempts near the rim and from the 3-point line, while conceding the less efficient mid-range and longer paint shots. By becoming a master of inefficiencies, by excelling at the shots defenses are often openly willing to concede, Paul has gamed the system in his favor. He takes what the defense gives him, and he smothers them with it.
Nowhere is this more evident than when he is working as a ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. Going into last night’s game against the Warriors, Paul had attempted 138 shots out of the pick-and-roll; 27 of those attempts were 3-pointers (9-27, 33.3%), 27 were layups or dunks (15-27, 55.6%), and 84 were 2-point jumpers, runners or floaters (41-84, 48.8%). Those shooting numbers are pretty much right in line with his overall numbers for the year, as you can see in the chart above. Add this all up, and despite drawing only nine shooting fouls and making just nine 3s, Paul sits 9th in the NBA in points per play (PPP) as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, per mySynergySports.
The combination of body control and ball control Paul exhibits when he comes around a screen is unmatched by anyone in today’s NBA, even other greats like Steve Nash. Paul quite literally has the ball on a string, yo-yoing it side to side, back and forth until he gets exactly where he wants to go, until he gives himself just a modicum of space with which to unleash his shot. He doesn’t need much room at all, as his pinpoint accuracy is seemingly there whether open or pressured on the attempts.
It seems as though his goal on each pick-and-roll play is to attack the nearest elbow and force the two defenders on the action into a decision on what they want him to do, then do exactly that and beat them with it. If they trap him on his way there, he either passes it or splits them. If his defender goes under the screen, he takes the jumper. If his defender tries to fight over the screen and the big sags back, he drives and forces the big into yet another impossible decision.
One of the most common things you see when watching Paul operate on pick-and-rolls is the subtle little in and out dribble he throws at the hedging big man to get him to back off just as he enters the paint. He comes roaring around the screen, still somehow seeming as though he’s not going all that fast, and then just as quickly, he feigns more forward motion while at the same time backing off just enough to get off his mid-range jumper from just inside or outside the lane.
Of course, that’s not all he’s got in his bag of tricks. When the defense overplays expecting that jumper near the side of the lane, he pulls out one of the best hesitation dribbles in the league. He’ll come to almost a complete stop before turning on the jets and blowing past his man on the way to the rim.
Then there are those occasions where it looks like there’s no shot available, but he just keeps his dribble alive until he finds one. Here, he draws three Denver defenders as he comes around the screen and ventures into the lane. Undeterred, he just keeps it moving, almost floating to the other side of the lane until one by one, each defender abandons him and he winds up with an open runner.
With equal effectiveness out of the high pick-and-roll or when being downed on side pick-and-rolls, Paul is a master of splitting the defense, even when it seems there is no available space to do so. It’s all a masterful combination of ball control and body control, lengthening his stride while constricting his dribble to slip through the slightest of spaces to get where he wants to go.
Then, there’s the master class; those rare plays where he puts every one of his tricks together at once and you can’t help but shake your head, tap out #-P-O-I-N-T-G-O-D on your Tweetdeck and hit send, because there’s really nothing else to say.
Watch as he attacks hard coming around the screen, splitting both defenders and blowing right by them into the lane. When met with a help defender, he hits him with the in-and-out to try to get off his stepback. Still covered, he keeps his dribble alive and again splits two defenders with his hesitation move before putting his floater up and in.
It almost looks impossible, but it’s really just a case of Paul taking what the defense presents him, time and time in a row, and then beating them with it.